Another year, another NBA Finals defeat for LeBron James. After his Cleveland Cavaliers fell to the Golden State Warriors Friday night, ending a four-game championship sweep, James’s Finals ledger now lists only 3 wins against 6 losses. It’s a mark completely out of step with those of his historical peers, including Michael Jordan (6-0), Tim Duncan (5-1), Kobe Bryant (5-2), Shaquille O’Neal (4-2) and Stephen Curry (3-1). It’s also probably the No. 1 stumbling block in James’s case as the NBA’s greatest-ever player.
But, as is usually the case when you dig deeper than simple ring-counting, things are more complicated than they initially seem. For instance: According to the pre-series Vegas lines, Jordan was favored in all six of his Finals bids, while James has been an underdog seven times in his nine trips to the Finals. One of the hallmarks of James’s career has been dragging terrible teammates to the brink of a championship (and none might have been worse than the crew he brought to face the Warriors this season). That’s great for boosting a player’s tally of Finals appearances — but it leads to a terrible record in the title round itself.
Because of this, any analysis of rings won has to account for the differing levels of expectation a player’s teams have going into each series. And by that standard, James has actually won more championships than we’d reasonably expect him to, even after falling to the Warriors this year.
We can measure a player’s Finals record versus expectation by using FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings (which measure a team’s relative quality at any given moment) to calculate his teams’ pre-series odds of winning the Finals. Add up those probabilities over an entire career, and you get the number of titles we’d expect a player to have won, adjusted for who he played and how good his own team was. Here’s how James’s Finals career breaks down against expectation:
|Year||Team||Opponent||Pre-Finals W%||Finals Game Score/G||Won Finals?|
James’s Cavs and Heat teams have generally gone into the Finals with far less than a coin flip’s chance of winning the series. And although James played poorly (especially by his standards) during his first two appearances — including a 2011 matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, in which Miami was favored and could have won if James had only performed better — he’s been playing at a progressively higher level as his Finals career has gone on. With the Warriors’ juggernaut always advancing out of the Western Conference in recent years, though, it hasn’t mattered.
So in that sense, it’s not really a surprise that James has that 3-6 record in the Finals. In fact, if you add up the pre-series odds in the table above, you get an expected championship count of 2.8 for James — meaning he’s somehow running 0.2 titles above expectation, despite his record. Although that trails Jordan (who won 1.9 times more than we’d expect from the pre-series odds), it’s better than Bryant, whose 5-2 mark is exactly even with what the probabilities would have expected.
|Player||Appearances||Avg. Game Score||Exp.||Act.||Diff.|
According to our measure, James is firmly in the middle of this pack of historical greats. That’s probably still a knock if we’re judging his candidacy for the title of absolute GOAT, but adjusting for competition does end up softening the blow of LeBron’s raw Finals record. Individually, James has outplayed almost all of his peers on the game’s biggest stage, but he’s seldom been in a position to convert those performances into championships.
And in many ways, 2018 was the ultimate microcosm of James’s Finals career. He went into the series as a massive underdog, after carrying his undermanned Cavs through a grueling Eastern Conference playoff run. Even as James was scoring 51 points in Game 1, JR Smith’s late blunder probably cost Cleveland its best chance to make the Finals competitive. (It also reportedly spurred James to punch a whiteboard in the locker room after the game, injuring his hand for the rest of the series.) Still, according to Game Score, James had one of the best individual NBA Finals of any player since the merger (on a per-game basis) … and for all of his efforts, the Cavs still got swept. He might have been the only player ever, in any sport, who could earn Finals MVP speculation while being on the wrong side of a sweep.
This is LeBron James’s fate, it appears. And because of it, we have to measure him relative to his conditions, rather than in the typical vacuum of ring-counting analyses. Perhaps that will be one of James’s enduring legacies: He caused us to bring a new level of nuance to the usual debates about Finals records.